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Keith Harmon: Former jailer served in U.S. Army Air Force

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WWII Veterans Series

By Dave Taylor

War had been raging for several months in various parts of the globe when the Japanese attacked United States military installations in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. Most young Americans knew the handwriting was on the wall. It was only a matter of time before military duty would call.

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“I really didn’t know what to think,” recalled Trimble resident Keith Harmon in a recent interview. “I thought maybe I’ll be going into the service, naturally. I’m going to be shot at, killed or whatever just like the rest of the boys here in the county. I didn’t know what to expect. But I was willing and ready to do whatever I had to do.”

Harmon and his twin brother Kenneth were 19 years of age when the U.S. went to war. They were still residing with their parents, Byron and Lizzy Harmon, on a Carlisle Road farm the family had rented. Like many young men their age the Harmon brothers were drafted within a few months after Pearl Harbor.

“At the time I was farming and like most guys 19 years old I didn’t have a regular job at that time,” Harmon said. “I had been in and out of some jobs but it wasn’t permanent knowing I had been drafted for the service. I hadn’t made any particular plans for myself. I was sitting around having a good time and waiting for what Uncle Sam wanted to do with me.”

Keith and his brother were drafted on the same day. They wanted to serve together, a plan to which their mother objected. Five brothers by the name of Sullivan had perished together on the same ship early in the war. Keith and Kenneth Harmon were among a busload of young men who left Trimble County in December 1942 to take their physical examinations in Louisville. By then they were 20 years of age. Keith and Kenneth were inducted into the Army Air Force. The air arm of the U.S. Army did not become the United States Air Force until 1947.

“We took our basic training together,” Keith said. “He was in one squadron and I was in a different squadron but we were still at the same place.”

Upon their induction Keith and his Trimble buddies learned that a number of recruits who had been stationed in Louisville for several weeks were getting three-day passes to go home for the holidays.

“Graham Jackson, Kenneth my twin brother and I went up to the commanding officer and said, ‘Sir, we’d like to speak to you.’ He was real nice. He knew what we were there for,” Harmon said.

The officer asked what was on their mind.

“Well, we’d like to ask you a favor. We’d like to have a three-day pass.”

“Well, how long have you been in the service?” the officer inquired.

“Since yesterday.”

“Well, boys, we’ve got guys that’s been here a few weeks. We can’t give them a pass and I don’t think we can give you one just yet either.”

“That was the end of that,” Harmon recalled.

Following basic training Keith was assigned to a cargo transportation wing of the service. He served stateside in California, South Dakota and Indiana before being transferred to Bowman Field—then an active military staging facility in Louisville.

“They were getting us ready to go overseas,” Harmon said. “I had already been in the service about 18 months then and I asked for a furlough.”

Harmon told his lieutenant his home wasn’t far from Louisville and he wanted to visit his family.
The lieutenant said no furloughs were being issued because the unit had to get its advanced training before being transferred overseas.

“That went on for several days,” Harmon said. “I figured I could get home and get back in time before we left so I went AWOL. I knew they would come after me because I wasn’t there with my outfit when they were ready to go overseas. Mom knew I was AWOL. She told me, ‘You better go back.’ So I went back.”

The next morning Harmon was back in his bunk when the sergeant came in to wake everybody up.

“Get up,” the sergeant said. “We’ve got company! Harmon’s home!”

“He put a soldier in charge of me. I was under a personal guard. They arranged for my commanding officer to see me. The commanding officer called me into his office and said, ‘Harmon, you’ve got us buffaloed. How come you to go AWOL?’”

“Well, I asked you all real nice, knowing that we were going overseas and also knowing that I could leave here some night, get home and see my friends and my girlfriend and get back in time to go overseas with my group,” Harmon answered.

Harmon was placed in the guardhouse for awhile and then freed on parole. He was not allowed to leave the base and his dress uniform was taken away to inhibit his departure.

“This one friend of mine, he was kind of brash like I was and he said, ‘Come on, Harmon, let’s go into town tonight.’ I said, ‘I can’t go to town. I don’t have any uniform and I’m on parole.’ He said ‘I can find you a uniform.’ After it was dark he went to an empty barrack and found a complete uniform. Anyway we took that chance and slipped out under the gate at the back of the camp. Here came a taxi and we went into town. We had to get back before curfew. So we came back, got out of the taxi and under that gate we went again. We went back on camp, back to where I had changed clothes and put my old everyday uniform on and I was back with the bunch the next day. They never found out.”

Ultimately, the Army reduced his pay to two-thirds as punishment for his earlier unauthorized visit with his family. The pay suspension lasted three months.

In April 1944, Keith’s unit—the 333d Air Force—was incorporated into the Army’s 1st Combat Cargo Group. The group and their C-47 cargo planes were shipped to Bombay, India the following August.

“From Bombay we went by boat up the Hooghly River into China,” Harmon said. “We spent most of our time in China supplying other groups.”

According to Air Force historical archives, the Army’s 1st Combat Cargo Group began operations in Sept. 1944 by transporting supplies and reinforcements to and evacuating casualties from Imphal, Burma. The unit continued to support Allied operations in Burma, flying in men and supplies from India, moving equipment required to construct and operate airstrips, dropping dummy cargoes to lead the enemy away from Allied offensives, dropping paratroops for the assault on Rangoon in May 1945, and evacuating prisoners of war who were freed by Allied advances.

Part of the group, including Harmon, had been sent to China, and for a short time the group’s headquarters was located there. Operations in China included flying many supply missions, some of which involved ferrying gasoline and materiel over the Hump (Himalayan Mts.) from India. Following the war Harmon’s unit returned to the U.S. in Dec. 1945.

“My assignment was sometimes different,” Harmon recalled. “For some of the time I was a telephone switchboard operator. We moved so much that to keep our outfit supplied, part of the time I was loading and unloading bombs to transfer to our main bomber outfits. When planes were coming in I had to manifest them as to what time they were being unloaded and the certain type bombs. I did whatever came up right at the time. I did a whole lot of clerical work.”

Back in civilian life Harmon did odd jobs, farming and building for a period of time. He married and moved to Madison where he worked in a factory and later for Thompson Glass Dairy. Following a divorce he raised four daughters—Mary, Teresa, Cindy and Gay—as a single parent. He was elected Trimble County Jailer, a post he held for 17 years until his ultimate retirement in 2002.

“I was glad to do what I could do,” he said recently of his military service. “I didn’t think about how dangerous it was. Maybe I was in danger, maybe I wasn’t. Who knows? I wasn’t any better than any of the rest of the boys that I was with. They did their jobs. I knew what I had to do.”

He said he isn’t worried about the story of the second AWOL occurrence with the “borrowed” dress uniform catching up with him after all these years.

“I’ve got a bigger Commanding Officer now,” he said. “God is my Commanding Officer.”